FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A 30-year-old cold case has more than a hundred new leads thanks to a local woman’s new documentary.
With fallen branches, thick brush and tangled trees, the Ozark National Forest has provided cover for a dark mystery. Melissa Witt, like any 19-year-old, had dreams of a bright future. The Fort Smith woman was described as friendly, kind-hearted, and loving.
“The entire community loved Melissa. She was just this happy-go-lucky, wonderful person and had all of that just brutally ripped away from her,” author and private investigator LaDonna Humphrey said.
December 1, 1994, Witt went missing, believed to be abducted from a Fort Smith bowling alley. There were signs of a struggle, but Witt was nowhere to be seen. Six weeks later, two hunters found her body in the Ozark National Forest near Turner Bend, but investigators still have not been able to find her killer.
To this day, that is a tough pill to swallow for Humphrey. An Arkansan, not much older than Witt when she went missing, Humphrey has followed this case from the beginning.
“Knowing that her case wasn’t solved and now her mother has passed away and there wasn’t resolution; that has been really hard for me to accept,” she said.
For the past eight years, she has decided to work on the case herself. That work resulted in Uneven Ground: The Melissa Witt story. The documentary premiered on May 20 at True Crime Fest NWA. Humphrey posted it to YouTube hoping for even just a few clicks.
“This is truly about me putting together a project that will help fund things to help solve her case, that will pay for billboards, that will pay for mailings that we do, that will eventually pay for DNA testing,” she said.
It started to spread like wildfire. After two weeks on YouTube, a distributor picked it up. The documentary was put on Amazon Prime, Tubi and several other platforms. It is up to almost 6 million views.
“I’m grateful because every person that watches that doc, we get one day closer to getting the information that we need,” Humphrey said.
Then came the accolades. It has been honored by more than 20 film festivals so far, including this month’s Fayetteville Film Festival.
“What’s great about the uneven ground documentary is that it reminds us that this story does still exist. I mean that was 30 years ago,” Fayetteville Film Fest programming director Ringo Jones said.
With each film festival comes valuable exposure.
“When you come to a film festival, you’re not going to see a lot of household names. You’re not going to have Chris Pratt up on the screen. But there’s a lot of opportunity to discover new talent. The other thing is, there’s a lot of unknown filmmakers that are just getting their foothold in the industry,” Jones said.
In Humphrey’s case, it is not just a foothold in the industry but introducing Witt to a wider audience.
“I would say we’ve seen a good solid 100, 150 pieces of information come through that warrants more investigation, and that’s a big deal in a case that’s almost 30 years old,” Humphrey said.
Now, more eyes than ever are on the Ozark National Forrest, and that might reveal one of its best-kept secrets.
“We want to see cuffs on the man that murdered Melissa Witt and for Melissa to have justice, and I just cannot stop until I see that happen,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey believes that moment is closer than ever before.
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